HAY-soos or hay-SOOS? Getting the accent right in Spanish

(Halisia Hubbard/NPR)

Last year, I wrote about how to say foreign names and places on the air. I offered tips and resources on correct pronunciation in any language.

But recently I heard a piece about a Central American man named Jesús. The reporter got the letter sounds right — he pronounced the “j” like the “h” in English. But he got the emphasis wrong. He stressed the first syllable like in English, so it came out “HAY-soos” instead of “hay-SOOS.”

Proper pronunciation shows respect for our audiences. Around 40 million people in the U.S. speak Spanish at home, according to the U.S. Census. That’s almost as many Spanish speakers as there are in Spain.

So could the reporter’s mispronunciation have been avoided? Yes, easily. That’s because, unlike in English, the rules for accentuation in Spanish are consistent and simple to learn.

Here they are:

Is there an accent? Yes.

Spanish accents are always over vowels, so stress the syllable that contains the accented vowel.

Examples of names:

Joaquín <hoh-ah-KEEN>

García <gar-SEE-ah>

Gómez <GOH-mes>

Examples of words:

brújula <BROO-hoo-lah> – compass

transportación <trans-por-tah-SYON> – transportation

Is there an accent? No.

Does the name or word end with a vowel, or the letters “n” or “s”?

Stress the penultimate syllable (even if the name only has two syllables):

Examples of names:

Flores <FLAW-res>

Santos <SAN-tos>

Villanueva <vee-yah-NWEH-vah>

Examples of words:

tomates <toh-MAH-tes> – tomatoes

fascinadora <fah-see-nah-DOH-rah> – fascinating

Does it end in a consonant other than “n” or “s”?

Stress the last syllable.

Examples of names:

Bernal <behr-NAHL>

Bachelet <ba-che-LET>

Muñoz <moo-NYOS>

Examples of words:

felicidad <feh-lee-si-DAHD> – happiness

picador <pee-kah-DOR> –  picador

There’s always an exception.

Like when a word gets the adverbial “-mente” ending. The diacritical mark stays where it was in the original word, but then you follow the rules as though it’s not there.

fácil <FAH-cil> – easy

fácilmente <fah-cil-MEN-te> – easily

But that’s about it. Spanish is a very rule-bound language.

Still, it’s worth knowing that accent marks can also be used to break a dipthong into discrete syllables. The rules of stress remain the same.

día <DEE-ah> – day

país <pah-EES> – country

And when there’s only one syllable, the accent makes it an entirely different word.

si = if

= yes

More on names

Latin American place names of indigenous origin also follow Spanish accentuation rules.

For example, these are stressed on the penultimate syllable:

Copacabana <koh-pah-kah-BAH-nah>

Ushuaia <oosh-WAH-yah>

And these have accents that stress the last syllable:

Michoacán <mee-choh-ah-KAHN>

Cúcuta <KOO-koo-tah>

Keep in mind that the above rules don’t necessarily apply to Hispanic names in the U.S., where many immigrants over the years dropped accents from their names. Blame American typewriter keyboards!

For example, the surname Fernandez is stressed on the middle syllable: <fer-NAN-dez>. In Spanish-speaking countries it would have to have an accent — Fernández — otherwise the last syllable would have to be stressed.

Finally, not all people in Latin America have Hispanic names. That’s because, just like the United States, immigrants arrived there from all over the world.

So if you have a Spanish name or word in your script, figure out which rule of stress applies to it. It will help you sound authentic on the air, and your Spanish-speaking listeners will appreciate it.

Spanish recordings by Isabel Lara, Executive Director of NPR Media Relations

Jerome Socolovsky is the NPR Training team's Audio Storytelling Specialist.